I cried through most of the new movie CODA. Not because it’s a melancholic film — on the contrary, the story is charming and heartwarming — but because I’ve never seen deafness represented in such a visible way.
I’ve always felt I didn’t quite have a place in the world. Born with a rare form of moderately-severe hearing loss, I could never fully be part of the hearing world, yet neither was I part of the Deaf community. I’ve stumbled my way into it as an adult — learning American Sign Language (ASL) on my own — and I’ve discovered that CODAs (children of deaf adults) sometimes feel the same way. As hearing kids raised in the Deaf community, they’ve always had one foot in each world, a fact echoed in the film’s recurring song Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
That’s certainly the case for the film’s young protagonist. Apple TV+'s CODA, out Friday, explores the familiar coming-of-age story of a high school teen but from a new angle: Seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family and must decide between following her dream of attending music school or staying home to help with the family fishing business.
Though the central plot revolves around the one hearing member of the family, the film deftly represents the Deaf community without the usual disability tropes and reflects the depth of our experiences without making deafness an all-defining feature. For many of us, deafness is not a deficit as it has typically been portrayed in film. I see our strength in Ruby’s deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), who must navigate an inaccessible world created for the hearing. I recognize myself in their everyday interactions as they politely smile and nod despite not being able to hear. I feel the anger and frustrations of her older brother (Daniel Durant), who is also deaf, when he exclaims, “Let them figure out how to deal with deaf people! We’re not helpless.” I felt seen, which is rare in a society that largely centers around sound for communication.
I hid my deafness, in part, because everyone I knew and saw on the screen was hearing. I didn’t even meet another deaf person until I was an adult. When I watched CODA, with three front-and-center deaf actors, I realized how desperately I yearned to see people like me in leading roles. As a young girl born in the ‘80s and grown in the ‘90s, my first glimpse of deafness was Marlee Matlin in 2007’s The L Word. Matlin is still the only deaf actor to win an Oscar for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, but at 5 years old, I certainly wasn’t watching R-rated romances. CODA’s true-to-form casting gives me hope that my 6-year-old daughter, who has the same form of hearing loss, will see herself on screen through deaf characters and stories that highlight the beauty of deafness earlier than I did.
And beauty certainly abounds in CODA. Troy Katsur’s performance as Ruby’s dad, in particular, is brilliant — and a reminder that deaf talent is readily available. I laughed out loud repeatedly at his flawless comedic delivery. Frank waves aside his daughter’s admonitions to turn down the blaring rap music when picking her up from school, exclaiming he loves the genre because his “whole ass is vibrating.” In great detail, Frank explains his jock itch to the doctor: “My nuts are on fire. They’re like angry, hard little beets. Covered in barnacles. And your mother’s even worse... like a boiled lobster claw.” Not every signing communication has a direct English translation, but the “sex talk” that Frank and Jackie give their daughter and her love interest, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelio), shows that a conversation with your parents about the birds and the bees is uncomfortable in every language, including ASL.
Kotsur-as-Frank is a magical portrayal that almost didn’t happen. When Matlin learned that a hearing actor was being considered for the role, she threatened to withdraw from the movie. But writer/director Siân Heder knew the importance of accurate representation and insisted on casting deaf actors, resulting in a magnificent and authentic depiction of one facet of the Deaf community. It’s no wonder that CODA won four awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is the first film in Sundance history to win all three top prizes in the U.S. dramatic category.
The hashtag #RepresentationMatters permeates social media for good reason: We subconsciously learn what is socially acceptable and desirable by watching those depicted on screen. CODA isn’t just a film about and for the Deaf community; it’s a movie that appeals to the universal language of love and the value of family. It’s a wonderful film, and the more people who watch it, the more likely the entertainment industry will be to cast deaf actors and feature deaf stories. Plus, you can even learn a few signs — including some fun and not-so-polite ones.